Let’s be honest, it’s hard to make cricket exciting in a video game. It’s hard enough to make it exciting on telly. You know you’ve got a job on when half the players on the field spend most of their time signing autographs or having a drink. But that hasn’t stopped Codemasters from giving it a shot with Ashes Cricket 2009, due out for the Xbox 360, PS3 and PC this summer.
Thankfully, Ashes isn’t cricket for casuals, as a few hours hands-on with the game proved. Nor is it the intimidating and complicated proposition its predecessor, Brian Lara, was. It fits somewhere in between, with a bowling and batting system that’s easy to grasp, but in-depth enough to impress cricket enthusiasts.
Brian Lara fans, however, might lament Codemasters’ decision to ditch arguably the greatest batsman ever from its cricket game. You can understand it, though. Lara’s retired, probably sunning himself on a white-sanded West Indian beach, sipping cocktails as he counts his money mountain as you read this. Releasing a Brian Lara game in 2009 would be like having Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink (the greatest striker ever to play the game of football… didn’t you know?) on the cover of FIFA 2010. So, given that cricket’s at its most popular in the summer during the Ashes, we have Ashes Cricket 2009.
Cricket fans will want to know how it plays, and the answer is… really well. Batting and bowling have been modified somewhat from the multi-tasking mayhem of Brain Lara to allow players who simply want to hit the ball with nary a care for the intricacies of batting to do so, and to allow experts to put into virtual practice their superior knowledge. So, at its most basic, the left thumb stick is rotated to govern where you want to aim the shot, and a well-timed press of the A button (on the 360 pad, the version tested) will, hopefully, smack the ball for a boundary. Job done.
Aficionados, however, will want more, and they’ll get it. Holding the left trigger puts your stance on the back foot, and the left bumper puts your stance on the front foot (you can let the computer decide, but it might get it wrong). This makes the direction of your shots much more accurate. Combining this with different types of shots and well-timed button presses gives you access to all the shots you’d expect a professional batsman to have up his sleeve. The X button, for example, triggers a defensive shot, and your batsman will play a straight bat. If it’s smartly aimed you’ll be able to annoy the bowler by sneaking singles here and there (running is queued by pressing the Y button, B cancels). B lofts the ball, which puts your shot in danger of being caught but can reap rewards. The success of the shot, however, is more to do with timing than anything else. Pressing the button about half a second before the ball hits the ground seemed to work well in the coaching modes, but during a game you’ll need to vary your timing to cope with missiles that are being chucked down your throat. It’s initially fiddly, but, after 20 minutes or so, becomes intuitive, fun and, most important of all, satisfying.
The timing principle that governs batting also applies to bowling. You pick the kind of ball you want to play – slow, outswing or straight for a fast bowler; arm, offspin or topspin for a spinner – and, during the run up use the left thumb stick to move a reticule that determines where the ball will land. If you can move it into a position where it turns light green, then you know you’re bowling a good line. An execution meter then pops up on screen, which requires you to press the appropriate face button to release the ball. The idea is to stop the needle in the light green section, just before the red-coloured top part of the meter – press it too late and you’ll bowl a no ball. Light green is what you want for placement and execution. You’re also able to add swing with the triggers – it’s hugely satisfying to get a nick with an outswinger. The whole process sounds complicated, and at first it is, but, like batting, it soon becomes second nature.